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The UK’s oldest training route brings the next generation into the future

Many school-leavers seek to enhance their employment prospects by obtaining a university degree and, along the way, build up debts. Others, however, are choosing to move towards a professional qualification in the workplace via an apprenticeship scheme, earning while they learn and setting out on the road to a successful career in management. Many of today’s successful CEOs started their careers as apprentices. 

ApprenticeshipsToday’s apprentice is an individual undertaking paid work in an organization who, whilst working, acquires accredited qualifications that are relevant, transferable and enhance job performance.  The status of apprenticeships varies considerably across Europe, ranging from the extreme high regard with which they are held in Germany to their rather lower status and participation rate in the UK. This is a state of affairs that David Cameron has committed to changing, stating in 2012 that  “by making apprenticeships a gold standard option for ambitious young people, we are sending a message that technical excellence is as highly valued as academic prowess”

There are over 100,000 employers in the UK offering more than 200 different types of apprenticeships, including the BBC, Ford, Unilever, Virgin, Starbucks and Boots. In 2013 half a million apprentices started a recognized apprenticeshipprogramme in England alone.  Although traditionally associated with engineering and construction, modern apprenticeships are today much more diverse and include hospitality, retail, project, general management and leadership. Some are highly sought after, a place on BT’s apprenticeship scheme in 2010 had 20 times more applicants per vacancy than an undergraduate place at Oxford University.

Apprenticeships enable employers to customize their training to match their specific organizational needs and develop their own talent and so bring a wide range of potential advantages and benefits. Employers running successful apprenticeship schemes report greater productivity, greater staff loyalty, increased profits, lower costs, more flexibility, more innovation and improved customer service.  The Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) sees apprenticeships as a vital part of creating a dynamic and successful economy, a major vehicle through which the UK can continue to develop talent, to enhance skills and performance and improve productivity.   But what should these apprenticeships look like?

Apprentice frameworks first appeared in the Middle Ages and were closely associated with crafts.  Apprentices were trained, for several years, under the supervision of their master, an experienced person whose professional practice was guided by an organization, often a guild.  Only when apprentices were judged to have developed their own ‘mastery’ were they permitted to practice on their account. In today’s terms this means a period of training that enables the achievement  of a  level of performance that allows someone to work independently, without close supervision, and to a standard that is based on the best achievable, not the minimum acceptable.

The revitalization of apprenticeships in the past 25 years has been led and essentially controlled by government or government-sponsored bodies. As governments have increasingly tied public funding for training to apprenticeships, these have been transformed into a funding stream for training rather than a mechanism for developing ‘mastery’ of an occupation.   Employers have been involved in the development of apprenticeships, but their involvement has been variable and their influence has sometimes reflected short-term skills needs.  In order to play a significant role in long term strategic development, apprenticeships need to be under the control of independent groups, representing the interests of employers and employees alike and funded by them rather than being dependent on government for funding- this is the future.

Apprenticeship frameworks in England include the requirement for apprentices to be able to demonstrate competence on the job, to have knowledge of the role and have qualifications in the ‘functional’ skills of numeracy, literacy and technology.

But an apprentice should be prepared for the future as much as for the past and present demands of the role; shorter, less specific programmes to meet immediate employer needs should be the responsibility of employers. Training for those not ready for apprenticeships should be funded and organised separately; full-time apprenticeship preparation programmes could provide advanced standing on apprenticeship schemes, in much the same way as accountancy degrees do for those seeking professional accountancy qualifications.

On completion of their apprenticeship, apprentices should have the knowledge and confidenceto manage and inspire others, have detailed knowledge of the sector they work in and in depth understanding and appreciation of the culture of their organization and know they have acquired key transferable skills. These are significant demands to make of any training programme and the integrity of the qualifications must be maintained by independent third party validation.

The UK economy has grown by 3.2% in the past year, unemployment is now at the same level as pre-recession 2008 and employment is rising at a historically fast rate.  This recovery means that UK businesses are expecting a 73% increase in the number of jobs requiring leadership and management capability. Apprenticeships will play a significant part in ensuring that appropriately skilled people are ready to assume these roles.  

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